I was so smug when it came to my first daughter.
She practically bounced out of me, raw oyster in hand. This child would eat anything and everything by the time she was a year old, from sushi to French onion soup to mussels. On her second birthday, we celebrated with a feast of sashimi, raw oysters and Russian borscht—just a few of her favorite foods.
“It’s because we introduced her early to all the food, and never ordered off the kids’ menu,” I told anyone and everyone who would listen. “In fact, she’s never even tried a chicken nugget.”
Someone should have punched me in the face, but karma came for me instead.
When it came to my second child, another daughter, I started her on solids in the same way: Homemade purées filled with beets, bananas, avocados and weird combos of all of the above, just to get her used to exotic food combinations.
But she wasn’t having any of it.
The faces she made when I tried shoving chickpea purees into her mouth were as if I was feeding her a blend of dirt and rat poison. She literally scraped her tongue to remove the butternut squash I had lovingly roasted, peeled, cooled and pureed for her. And when I offered her some fish? If she could talk, I wouldn’t want to know the obscenities that surely would have come flying out of her tiny mouth.
It’s not that she didn’t have an appetite. At six months old, she most certainly loved to eat, as evidenced by her rolls and rolls of thighs and her spirited tantrums when my breast didn’t reach her mouth the instant she demanded it. Alas, her preference was for breast milk, and eventually bread and plain cooked pasta, but nothing else. What had I done wrong?
I decided to book a visit with her paediatrician.
“Some children just need a little more time to get used to food,” the doctor told me. It seemed like he thought I wasting his time.
So I contacted Ana Sant’Anna, the chair of the CPS Nutrition and Gastroenterology Committee at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, to ask her why my toddler wouldn’t eat the delicious concoctions I dreamed up—and why years later, as a schoolaged kid, she is still ridiculously picky.
There are a few reasons, Sant’Anna says, but none have much to do with me or my cooking abilities (she thinks, though she hasn’t tried my food). As babies, some kids have issues with textures, she says, so they like pieces of food but don’t accept purées, or vice versa. Other children reject specific colours of food, so by the time they’re two, they know they want the meat and the rice but they don’t want the fruit. “Even if they have a good appetite, they have a preference,” Sant’Anna says.
I don’t know exactly which of these issues affected and still affect my daughter, but given her interest in milk, bread, plain pasta and almost nothing else, I’m thinking it’s a combination. Regardless, Sant’Anna says my daughter is officially “picky”—but also, normal! About 20 percent of kids are picky eaters, though most do grow out of it, she says. No biggie.
But why? Is there really nothing that parents can do short of offering children a mix of foods and textures that will influence their eating habits—or is it a lost cause? If I have a third baby, what can I expect? (I am a planner, after all.)
Aimee Tyler-Smith, a registered dietitian based in London, Ont., offered me a few options. She suggested including one or two foods I know my daughter would eat with every meal and snack, in addition to providing her with the foods she *might* avoid, such as mushrooms (or just about everything edible). “It is important to not bug, coerce, reward or even comment when introducing new foods,” Tyler-Smith says. “Pressure to eat these foods will actually lead to more push-back.”
With threats and bribes off the table, however, my daughter realized that she had won. Globs and globs of spaghetti were shoved into her pie hole, with not a vegetable to be seen. Well, technically, she did see the vegetables. But they didn’t come close to her digestive system.
Meanwhile, her sister was going through her salad phase, trying to create the most inventive, delicious salad, The Chopped Leaf-style.
Jessica Corner, another dietitian, this one based in Bowmanville and Lindsay, Ont., says I’m being too hard on myself. “Being picky is a completely normal response to food,” Corner says. “A child exploring different foods will often initially reject new tastes or textures, might make a sour face or spit out food.”
The period of food exploration is part of building a positive and healthy relationship with foods. But it’s how we as parents and caregivers respond to it in an ongoing way that can make a long-term impact.
Corner recommends that we let our kids explore, touch and feel foods before accepting them. Let them get messy. If they put the food to their mouths, keep a neutral response. If they enjoy it and eat more, great. But if they spit it out, that’s fine too.
Want something a little more structured?
I’ve now learned about the Division of Responsibility model, developed by respected dietitian Ellyn Satter. In this model, Corner explains, parents are responsible for what foods are offered, where the food is served and when the child eats. The child is responsible for if they eat and how much. As long as there are no growth or medical concerns, you’re on your way to supporting your child’s journey to becoming a confident food lover, she says.
I sure wish I’d known about that a decade ago! I’ve now been on this picky eating journey with my daughter for ten full years. A decade of questioning my choices, my parenting, the curious reasons why two children with the same genetic makeup could have such different tastes. I’ve tried letting her get messy, cooking with her, offering the same foods at each meal, a dinner that looks like a cruise buffet… Alas, she still grabs the bread and calls it a meal while my other daughter chomps down on dried calamari and eggplant spread like it’s candy.
What have I learned from living through this, and consulting a variety of experts about it? Firstly, that in a lot of cases, parents have zero control over creating a great eater or a picky eater. Kids are who they are.
But also: I’ve learned that it’s a bad idea to be a smug mom until you’ve had more than one kid.